Study reveals fracking risk to drinking water

New underground maps from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the Environment Agency (EA) have discovered that many shale gas deposits overlap with major water aquifers.

The series of maps provide a new way to visualise geological data and assess the potential of fracking to contaminate drinking water with methane in England and Wales.

They show the depth to each shale gas and oil source rock below principal groundwater aquifers, which provide 30% of the UK’s drinking water and up to 70% of the drinking water in South East England.

The EA requires fracking companies to hold groundwater permits unless there is no significant risk to groundwater. Developments will not be allowed to go ahead if they are too close to drinking water sources, and the EA will not permit the use of chemical additives in hydraulic fracturing fluid that are hazardous to groundwater.

“We have strong regulatory controls in place to protect groundwater, and will not permit activity that threatens groundwater and drinking water supplies,” said the EA’s head of the air, land and water research team Dr Alwyn Hart said. “These maps will help public understanding of the separation between groundwater and potential shale gas sites.”


The findings actually mean that fracking in the UK will pose a much lower risk to water supplies than it has in parts of North America. The data shows almost all of the nation’s recoverable shale and oil gas is at least 650 metres below groundwater layers, while some US operations have targeted shale gas just 100 metres from water sources.

However, the BGS’s director of groundwater science Dr Rob Ward believes fracking has been poorly regulated in the United States, whereas adequate precautions for UK work would mean there was ‘minimal risk’ of contamination.

Ward explained that understanding the distance between shale gas and groundwater aquifers is important when assessing the environmental risks of fracking and oil exploitation. “For the first time the public will be able to visualise our nationally important Principal Aquifers in relation to potential shale gas and oil source rocks,” he said. “This information will help to better understand the risks to groundwater from shale gas and oil.” 

Anti-fracking campaigns

More than 45,000 people around the country have joined legal moves to use trespass laws to block energy companies from fracking under their properties. But the Government has already made controversial legal changes to make fracking easier by removing the requirement for individual homeowners to be notified of a planning application to drill or frack beneath their home. In January, a Lords committee reported that ministers had rushed through this planning reform despite overwhelming opposition and without adequate scrutiny.

Earlier this year, edie reported that campaigners against fracking plans in the South Downs claimed victory after Celtique Energy told residents it would not drill horizontally under their land.

Interactive maps showing the relative proximity of shale layers and aquifers are available on the British Geological Survey website.

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